Clinton hails `good, strong' relationship

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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton insisted last night that the British/United States relationship was still a "good and strong" one despite the prospects of a Congressional move to link US aid to Northern Ireland with the IRA's willingness to surrender its arms.

The President's brief remark came as he met the Prime Minister, John Major, after British officials reported broad support in Washington for the Government's stance of insisting that Sinn Fein goes further in pledging decommissioning of arms before ministers meet them.

British officials reacted cautiously to plans circulating among senior senators - including Jesse Helms, the foreign relations committee chairman - for a legislative amendment to link US government aid to the International Fund for Ireland to start on decommissioning.

But the proposal explicitly raised with Mr Major by Senator Robert Dole, the Republican majority leader, comes amid continued British efforts to persuade the US administration to intensify pressure on Sinn Fein to decommission arms. The US currently donates $20m (£12.5m) a year to the fund, but this is expected to expand as the peace process advances.

Yesterday's talk to Mr Clinton, on what has been a studiedly low-key working visit, came after Mr Major had stressed at a series of talks with Vice President Al Gore and senior Congressional figures that while ministerial talks with Sinn Fein were "close", the Republicans had yet to satisfy the conditions set by the Government.

Earlier, the political highlights of Mr Major's day had been his first meeting with Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the leading exponent in Anglo-Saxon conservatism on how to stage a political recovery within two years.

Mr Gingrich's $188bn tax cutting programme is at the centre of the "Contract with America", which helped to propel the Republicans into control of both Houses in the landslide Congressional mid-term election last year.

The issue of relations between the Republicans and the Conservative Party has been delicate since the loan of two Tory strategists during George Bush's unsuccessful campaign against Bill Clinton in 1992. But Frank Luntz, the Republican's pollster behind the "Contract with America" theme has met senior Tory figures in London recently, and Andrew Lansley, head of the Conservative Research Department, sat at the feet of leading Republican strategists in Washington last month.

After the meeting - at which the two politicians had a long discussion on the economy and international relations - Mr Major refused to give details and declined a promise of a "Contract with Britain" to match that of the Republicans.

Before the talks, Mr Gingrich was asked whether the two parties had much to learn from each other. "I think so," he said cautiously. "I don't want him to get in trouble back home. There is certainly a long continuum of having smaller government."

Mr Gingrich said that "in many ways" the Republicans' campaign last year had been "designed on [John Major's] campaign and on Mrs Thatcher's."

Claiming that it was a "special thrill" to meet Mr Major, Mr Gingrich insisted that Americans "do feel a special kinship. There is a special relationship."